Editor’s note: Some outdated racial terms that today are considered insensitive or offensive are used in this story, not out of disrespect but solely because of their appearance on official records.
Growing up, she was urged to not speak of her Indigenous roots.
“In our family, we were told not to talk about it,” recalled Marilyn Berry Morrison, chief of the Roanoke-Hatteras Tribe of the Algonquian Indians of North Carolina.
This fear, which “has been embedded” from generation to generation, is often still found among local Roanoke-Hatteras descendants today.
“We have active tribal members who don’t want to put in their paperwork to make them an official tribal member,” Morrison said.
Centuries of fear of forcible removals, government-sanctioned land-stealing and even government-sanctioned murder took its toll.
“Many years ago, if you claimed to be Indian or Native American, you were killed, OK? So that fear has trickled on down through generations,” Morrison explained. “Even having President Theodore Roosevelt say that ‘a good Indian is a dead Indian’… it really had a tremendous impact on being called Native American. And that is who we are.”
She has become an outspoken advocate of the tribe and believes others will follow suit.
“I believe in time we’ll get rid of that (fear) once they accept who they are and know who they are, and speak about who they are,” she said. “That will give them the confidence that I feel is what impacts the feeling of fear.”
Morrison has led the effort for official state tribal recognition for the past 12 years — an involved, frustrating process that inherently doesn’t make sense to her.
“We have a rich heritage and have been able to prove and establish who we are, and we just don’t know understand why it is taking so long,” said the Elizabeth City resident, whose parents and both their families were from Manteo.
“Our families never left,” she said of many members and descendants of the Roanoke-Hatteras tribe.
They were the subject of anthropologist Frank G. Speck’s field studies in 1916, when he noted the Indigenous ancestry of the local Berry, Daniels, Pugh and Wescott families, according to the nonprofit Algonquian Indians of North Carolina Inc.’s website. Speck wrote in 1924 that more than 100 Indigenous descendants lived on the islands.
Between the 1890s and 1900s, Morrison’s ancestor, Joseph Hall Berry, along with Lemuel Collins and Thomas Scarborough, bought property in Roanoke Island’s Butt Swamp area — land that “would become the center of the distinct Indian community on Roanoke Island,” according to ncalgonquians.com.
Archaeological research shows that Native Americans have lived in northeastern North Carolina “for at least 10,000 years and probably longer,” according to “Archeological Studies in the Northern Coastal Zone of North Carolina”by David Sutton Phelps.
That’s 41 times the length of the United States’ existence as a country.
And long before conservation efforts were ever dreamed of — or needed —stewardship was simply an innate part of everyday life, Morrison said.
“The forests, the swamps, the rivers, the landscapes were all nurtured by our people,” she said.
“We lived with nature, and everything that we had came from nature — our food, our clothes, our shelter — and we were appreciative of that,” she continued. “Our creation story also centers around the ocean, the sand and the coast.
“Hatteras was our fishing ground, and Roanoke was hunting grounds,” she said. “You have lot of mixture or intermarrying between the tribes, and that’s one reason why we carry two names: Roanoke-Hatteras.”
Algonquian was the language all local tribes spoke; each was part of the Algonquian Nation.
“The North American continent was divided up in nations,” she said. “There was an early treaty, so I’m told, that required each nation to protect a certain portion of the continent. The Algonquian Nation is the east gatekeeper, so it was our responsibility to protect the east land that runs from Canada through the southern tip of Florida.”
She added: “So I guess we didn’t do a good job by letting the Europeans get in and mess up our land.”
The first English venture into North America was at Croatoan, present-day Hatteras.
“The original name was Croatoan, which was changed to Croatan; and then the English for some reason changed it to Hatteras in the early 1700s,” Morrison said.
Historically, Morrison said the tribe gardened, hunted and fished, using bones and shells for utensils and regalia. Tanned animal skin and fur became clothing.
“We also only took from the land what we needed, and there was no waste; so conservation is key,” Morrison said. “Mother Earth was sacred to us, so we didn’t have to worry about trashing. We were a very clean people.”
The Roanoke-Hatteras also worked with natural environmental transitions.
“Everything was free-flowing,” Morrison said. “Water flowed in one direction, so you know not to block that off. It wasn’t until we had all this development that we disturbed Mother Nature.”
Morrison continued: “We are keepers of the land. It hurts to see that they built a dog park on sacred land up at the airport (in Manteo), and it further hurts seeing developers coming in and ruining Nature’s land. That strips the animals of their homes and also kills our forests and wetlands. The greed of man is a downfall.”
She suggests taking small steps to help address climate change.
“If we learn to reduce and reuse and recycle, and buy less stuff — and only buy what you need — that would be a good thing we can contribute to help address this global issue,” Morrison said.
Sharing with Others: A Way of Life
Centuries before the phrase, “Southern hospitality” was coined, it was an intrinsic cultural practice of the Indigenous people here.
In 1584, foreigners arrived at the coast of present-day North Carolina for the first time.
Chief Wingina ruled several tribes then, including the Roanoke-Hatteras, with more than 30 sub-chieftains under him. His wife stood on the shore and invited in these Europeans, according to tribal oral history.
“She welcomed them in the village; and, because they didn’t know what she was saying, she had braves come out,” Morrison said.
The braves swam out and carried these foreigners in on their backs, then washed their clothes and fed them, she explained. Some stayed, but when their rationings were depleted, they left. Following a disagreement about a silver cup, the foreigners beheaded a tribal chief – but not Wingina, who was also beheaded, but later.
“After we had taught them how to survive on our land and opened our homes to them, they in turn beheaded our chief,” Morrison said.
David Stick wrote in “Dare County: A Brief History” that soldier Ralph Lane led 107 men in the second English expedition to the area, staying on Roanoke Island through the winter of 1585-86.
Lane depended on the Native Americans to provide food for him and his men as they searched for gold in the sounds and rivers to the west.
“Despite their friendliness Lane considered the Indians savages and barbarians and treated them in a high-handed manner, culminating in a surprise attack on an Indian village in which a Roanoke chief and several other Indians were killed,” Stick wrote. “From then on the Roanoke Indians refused to give further help to the Englishmen and by spring Lane’s forces were suffering from an acute shortage of food.”
Lane’s attack on the locals who were feeding him didn’t make sense to the tribe then, or now.
“It’s hard to understand what their plight was,” Morrison said. “Many books tell us we were ‘savages.’ We were not the savages. We didn’t scalp. That was not our custom; that was a custom that was brought here.”
Wanchese viewed the Europeans “as being not very good for us, and he also helped Wingina see it that way,” Morrison said. “I know things separated, especially when Manteo was made ‘Lord of Roanoke;’ that didn’t really sit well with us, followed with Wingina being beheaded.”
She added, “Manteo is a touchy subject with me because I look at him as being a traitor. He sold us out.”
The custom of hospitality nonetheless lived on, according to Morrison.
Algonquian practice at hunting quarters was for all to partake of any game killed, so “all fare alike,” F. Roy Johnson wrote in his 1972 book, “The Algonquians: Indians of That Part of the New World First Visited by the English.”
Morrison’s grandfather, commercial fisherman Capt. Josephus “Joe” Berry, staunchly practiced that ethic. His longtime mate William K. “Billy” Brown’s 2006 book includes “the things he learned from my grandfather,” Morrison said. “A number of the things that he learned were Native American customs in regards to trapping, fishing, hunting (and) just how to conserve.”
“As a fisherman, Joe Berry was one of the very best,” Brown wrote in “Mullet Roar and Other Stories by an Outer Banker.”
“Joe had one habit that may have been a weakness or strength, depending on how you looked at things,” Brown wrote.“Whenever Joe found fish, he always called other boats that were in the area and invited them over to share in the catch.”
He continued: “I used to say, ‘Captain Joe, maybe we should catch a few before we call anybody.’ He’d always say, ‘I was not raised that way, Bill. I was taught to share my good luck with others.’ Every captain at Oregon Inlet knew this about Joe and respected his rare generosity.”
‘They Killed Us on Paper’
The 1940 Census lists Capt. Joe Berry and his family members each as “Negro” — including son Wheeler C. Berry, Morrison’s uncle, who would later become a Roanoke-Hatteras Tribe elder.
But racial categories eliminated Indigenous people as effectively as the many other government-sanctioned means, including the Trail of Tears, employed for this purpose.
In Morrison’s father Joseph Berry’s family, “prior to the 1900s, every member in his mother’s and father’s household was listed as white; and then they changed it to Black,” Morrison’s older sisters told her.
“Believe it or not, on my mom’s wedding certificate it says she was white,” Morrison said. “It says in her early years, she was mulatto, and then she became Black. So, when we ask genealogists to work with us, they are ready to tell us, ‘Oh, well, you aren’t Indian.’ How can they tell me who my ancestors are when I know who I am? That’s another way they killed us on paper. The records are not correct.”
Only her cousin Eagle Collins, who is in his 60s and was born in Hawaii, has a birth certificate that includes “Native American” on it, Morrison said.
Her family spans all skin tones — “from the whitest of whites to the blackest of Black,” she said. “We have blue eyes, green eyes, gray eyes, but we’re all the same blood.”
A 1991 article by Susan Greenbaum, “What’s in a Label? Identity Problems of Southern Indian Tribes” published in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, confirms this pervasive issue for Indigenous Southerners.
“In Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, and other southern states, the terms ‘mulatto,’ ‘colored,’ and even ‘black’ were frequently used to designate either full-blooded Indians, or mixtures of White and Indian. After the removals, ‘Indian’ ceased to be an operative census category in most counties in the south,” Greenbaum wrote.
“Indians who remained were categorized somewhat capriciously among the various remaining options,” she continued. “Designations were highly unstable; the same person could shift back and forth between Black, White, and mulatto.”
Greenbaum found in 1896-1902 poll tax records for the Mowa Choctaws in Alabama that 62% of tribal members “had been enumerated as both white and colored at different intervals during that brief period.”
During the country’s era of enslavement, Native Americans were often listed as “free persons of color,” and they sometimes “bought” enslaved Africans in order to rescue them. Europeans attempted to enslave Native Americans, but because they knew the land better than the foreigners, they were able to escape. The Africans, brought from another continent, did not have that advantage, Morrison explained.
One distant relative, Abijah, bought her husband Solomon; “and at her death, she willed her husband to her son, to make sure that he would never be enslaved again,” she said.
Because there were laws against Native Americans marrying white or Black people, “that was one way they got around it,” she explained. “And she was not the only one.”
According to oral history tradition, Morrison’s great-great-grandfather, Rev. Zion Hall Berry, planted more than seven churches in northeastern North Carolina — always by waterways — and facilitated escapes for formerly enslaved persons. These churches ranged from Haven Creek Baptist Church in Manteo to Antioch Baptist Church in South Mills to Corner Stone Missionary Baptist Church in Elizabeth City.
Morrison believes in correcting the untruths regarding Indigenous history: “We have a story that has gone untold far too long.”
“Those who are standing in fear need to stand boldly and speak about our culture, our heritage and tradition,” she continued. “We need to start speaking out boldly so we can reconstruct all these lies and start telling the truth about what actually happened. That’s the only way our children are going to be enlightened and learn to grow and be able to pass these truthful stories on to their children in the future.”
The Roanoke-Hatteras Tribe hosts an annual powwow in August that is open to the public, which was cancelled the past two years due to COVID-19. The tribe is planning one for 2022. Other future hopes include creating a museum for public display of tribal artifacts and building a senior center for older relatives.
Morrison said the tribe welcomes monetary or land donations toward these goals. For more information about the tribe, visit www.ncalgonquians.com.